Chasing Success

Jul 3, 2016 by

Chasing Success

We writers realize that the chances of any one thing we write being “successful” are slim.

At least that’s true if we define “successful” as “reaching an audience,” “getting produced or published,” “bringing in income,” or even “advancing a career in some way, like landing a manager or doing well in a contest.”

Of course, we all want those things, with every project. But when we define “success” in those terms, we put the power over our sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and satisfaction in other people’s hands — people who usually don’t even know us, or have any reason to care. And it can be awfully disheartening when that “success” doesn’t come. And it usually doesn’t, to the degree that we hope it will.

I know this, because I have generally fallen into this trap — focusing on the “successful outcome” as the whole point. I chose writing as a career, and from a practical point-of-view, it can only be that if some of these things are consistently happening, right? And I have always worked hard to try to make them happen. (And I certainly don’t discourage other writers from “working hard,” in the sense of “a dedicated devotion to one’s craft and projects.” As opposed to some sort of painful struggle, which I think can be counterproductive.)

But the focus on waiting for others to validate one’s work, and only feeling good about it when they do — is a not very happy, empowered or inspired way to live. And it tends to lead to burn-out and bitterness. Ironically, it also may lead to not producing one’s best (and even most sellable) material.

At least, that’s the message of a book I just read by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert.

EAT PRAY LOVE by BIG MAGIC author Elizabeth Gilbert

BIG MAGIC author Elizabeth GilbertIt’s called Big Magic, and it’s now the most highlighted book on my Kindle. It’s also the new number one on my list of books about the creative process, and th possible emotional struggles inherent in it. (Overtaking The War of Art and The Artists Way.)

One if its main points is that being creative is a great and fun way to live, if you do it a certain way. And that way involves detaching yourself emotionally from concerns about your work’s outcome in the world. Then it’s much more about serving the work, and even seeing it as something that wants to come through you. And then letting it go.

In a sense, this means what you’re writing is largely for you, not anyone else. Gilbert says she wrote Eat, Pray, Love for herself, to work through her own stuff, and was no more attached to (or expecting) a particular outcome in the world with it, than with any of her other books. (Which were mostly published, but never wildly successful.) And she credits this approach with allowing her to sanely experience — and then move on from — its huge worldly success (and the backlash that can come after that, including inner doubts about whether one can ever follow such a hit).

She also has a lot to say about perfectionism, and how it’s not just the enemy of good work, or of getting things done, but also of fun, which she considers a key part of the process. (I might paraphrase “fun” here as “greatly interested engagement” with some “thrill of discoveries and breakthroughs” along the way.)

She even tells the story about how, in a recent novel, she kind of knew that a certain character wasn’t quite working, but instead of going back and reworking the whole story in order to fix it, she decided to just put the book out as is, and move on. And lo and behold, the world didn’t stop turning on its axis. The book had its fans and its detractors, as they all do, and not much was said about this one character issue, by critics and readers. And rather than taking on what felt like a struggle for her, to do that work, she moved on to her next project. Happily.

How does all this square with the need to get notes on one’s work, and rewrite and rewrite until it’s really “ready”?

My view is this: notes are part of the process — the creation of a piece, and the “serving it,” until it’s everything it seems like it could become. This may be especially true in the unique medium that is screenwriting. But at a certain point, when you don’t feel you’re getting much out of the feedback, and not learning, or happily improving the piece (or just feeling “done” with it), then maybe it’s time to move on to the next. And to pronounce this one “successful,” in that you learned, grew, and served the idea, and participated in your creativity, and hopefully enjoyed it. (She says all this much more eloquently and entertainingly than I can — you should read the book.)

I also think that there is a lot of “learning the craft” in one’s early years as a writer, and that tends to require major engagement with others — who can teach, mentor and give feedback. Hopefully that process is enlightening, enriching, and fun, in some way.

But when you reach Elizabeth Gilbert’s status, where you’ve been published or produced several times, maybe you’re not so much learning the craft anymore, but applying those abilities to a new project. “Notes” might still be part of it, but not in quite the same way. At a certain point, you decide to trust your own instincts that it works, as is. Or you simply listen to the strong desire to move on. Either way you release the work, and try not to mind so much whether it leads to money, an audience, etc. Instead, you continue on your happy creative path with your next project.

Having a day job that pays the bills and is not soul-destroying is obviously a key part of it. Gilbert kept hers after four books put out by major publishers. Because her view is that we should not ask our creativity to sustain us in that way, as that’s not really its job. We are here to serve the work, not the other way around.

That work might not be writing, per se — as there are so many forms creativity takes. But she writes that being “creatively alive” is what it’s all about, and the best way to live, and kind of what we’re here to do. And I can’t say I disagree…

     
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.

17 Comments

  1. Marcio de Lemos

    Hi Erik,

    Thanks for sharing. Just finished listening to the audiobook twice and had a few bookmarks myself. She does shares some really good insights as she describes her own ways of dealing with the work, success and failures. She is also a great reader two. I highly recommend the audiobook.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge once again. I’m finding this immensely useful as I approach my own project – ‘Fallen Eagle’. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VCZiZaVN5s)

    Here in the UK a number of living history groups and re-enactors have teamed with an English film company to re-create one part of the Falaise pocket conflict of WW2. I’m tasked with producing the script.

    I was blown away by ‘Band of Brothers’ – and still am – so you can be assured I’ll be drawing on influences within it for my own work.

    Thankfully, marketing will not be down to me. Writing is a joy – marketing a chore.

    Write on.

    • Sounds like a cool project! Thanks for commenting and for the kind words about BAND OF BROTHERS…

    • gary

      I’ve become unusually interested in WW2 stories. However the stories seem almost more fascinating from the German soldiers perspective. If you have not already, I bet your story would be much more dynamic if you were acquainted equally with the the “losing locker room”. Good luck. I hope it all works out well for you.

      • Thanks guys. And Gary, I think the fascination from the ‘enemy’ perspective is due to history being written by the victors. Stories from the opposing perspective do not seem to come to light too often. There’s two sides to every coin, as they say.

  3. I agree.

    Do you write for success only or to unbottle that genie. I guess for most it’s both but where do you aim? As a comedy writer there are a lot of rules but as long as you willing break them, it’s fine. I could not write jokes I didn’t find funny.

    • It’s difficult to turn away completely from the goal of success, and maybe impossible. But I think the book is saying to aim at “unbolting that genie,” and see the rest as mostly out of your control, and not the point.

  4. Tommy Waage

    Great article.

    I must admit I am one of those perfectionists, but I can’t deny what I am can I? Growing up I loved to draw and paint and was set on replicating reality down to the finest details, something which I learned to mastered quite well. Although making a photocopy of reality wasn’t very creative, it did teach me finesse. And after learning more about life creativity sort of sprouted by itself.

    That field of art is part of my backbone. Sometimes I love doing it, sometimes I’m sick of it. But it stays with me as something I can bring back and master at any moment.

    So I have my own renaissance now and then. It hasn’t made me famous, but what is fame? For a brief moment in time I sold hundreds of works and it felt good. People still have my work on their walls. If for nothing else I hope that writing can bring me that feeling back. Feeling useful in a more philosophical way, making the way to someone’s wall. It being the wall in their home or their inner wall pretty much count for the same.

    Of course I can always start painting again but perfecting the ability to reproduce what I see onto a canvas has over time sprouted a lot of ideas that would take forever to explain one picture at a time, a double forever if I had to paint each frame in a movie…. So I turned to writing. I do hope to achieve the same finesse in that area. And it’s a struggle, at least that I have learned so far. Thankfully, insight from masters of the art provides a beacon on the way, but I know that in the end it narrows down to who you are and what you have to say.

    Sometimes you don’t have anything to say. Other times you have too much to say. And when those moment comes, having a medium to channel it through can really make a difference in your life. Play the long game, master a skill and you’ll have a tool ready for you when that ground breaking idea hits. That’s my motto.

    If it never does, at least you’ll have a skill most people would dream of. And what reached a few walls, inner or outer, may in the future inspire others and make it to the big wall some day. I think it’s worth the struggle.

    • I definitely agree with you. I also recognize that to develop one’s craft requires lots of dedication, practice, study and refinement (as opposed to perfectionism), and I think BIG MAGIC supports all of those things.. She talks about being a real servant to the work, and probably looks to many like a “hard worker.” But there’s also a lightness to her approach, and a letting go of focusing on the outcome.

  5. Ronnie

    Wow! I completely agree! And I did something similar when she published the book with “the issue on that character”. I’ve been struggling for years to send my screenplays to contests because I wasn’t sure if they are ready and “perfect”, so this year I decided to take action and sent two of my “babies” to contests. I realized that was the only way to find out once and for all how I am doing as a writer and if those stories are good enough.

    • I think Liz Gilbert might even go a step further and say that it doesn’t matter if others think they’re “good enough” as long as you keep going, focused on growth, commitment, authenticity and joy…

  6. Boyd Zumwalt

    To write for other to read you better have something to write about. That would have to be life experiences. If you have not experienced life you have nothing to write about. This could be being raised in the barrio , like Victor Martinez, catching big Marlin like Hemmingway, military experiences like Robert Leckie, or climbing a mountain like Hillary. I know a kid with a degree in writing from a major university. His problem is he has never done anything worth writing about. At least not to me. Without life experiences to write about you might make a good editor or proof reader.

    In that same vein you have to write to satisfy yourself. And if success comes with your writing. Yay! If it doesn’t and you’re happy with it. Yay!

    • I think you raise a good point. I’ve seen that phenomenon, too, including in myself. I wonder, though, if one’s life experiences worth writing about could be INNER experiences (especially in fiction, vs. screenwriting). Or, if a young writer has the right tools and approach, s/he might glean authentic and powerful material from a life that hasn’t yet included such obviously big experiences as the ones you mention.

  7. beth rohach

    Can’t agree more! Love the process of writing, but don’t love the marketing of the the finished product, it’s not fun for me. I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished and am not worrying about the financial aspect of it, although it would be nice to get paid a lot of money and be recognized and respected in writing circles. I’ve become part of a film making community and am helping others realize their potential, and that’s enough for me. Thanks Erik!

  8. Shade

    “She was learning, quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievements” –Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness

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